FOR world leaders, the prospect of a day spent milling around a gleaming new conference centre in Hangzhou, China, at the G20 summit this week, with nothing to show for it but an anodyne communiqué, must be depressing enough. Worse is the knowledge that many of them will then head straight for the East Asia Summit, an annual jamboree hosted by the ten-member Association of South-East Asian Nations, or ASEAN, to be held this year in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Whatever skills President Xi Jinping of China may display in concealing an absence of purpose at the G20 were surely learned from South-East Asia. When it comes to elevating form over substance, and confusing a proliferation of meetings and acronyms for a deepening of ties, ASEAN is the Zen master.
Laos has what may be the world’s most closed political system after North Korea. The last ASEAN summit held there, in 2004, led to the construction of sleepy Vientiane’s first high-rise. As for the few visiting media, the communist official appointed as spokesman for the occasion responded to most questions by blinking. This time the presidents of America and Russia, the prime ministers of China, India and Japan and 5,000-odd other foreign officials and journalists are about to descend on a city that is no bigger than the obscure Thai provincial capital on the opposite bank of the Mekong river.
At a meeting of ASEAN’s foreign ministers in Vientiane in July (the AMM, since you ask), fluttering welcome flags lined the streets leading to the convention centre—the cathedral of summitry, often bearing signs of hasty completion. The youngish new foreign minister displayed a suavity that was absent a dozen years ago. Yet no one had warned the chatty student volunteers about the boisterous foreign press. They were left speechless when South Korean journalists got into a shoving match with a North Korean minister’s bodyguards.
In the new cathedrals, the “ASEAN way” prevails. Like many other dogmas, this one is tautologous. At its squidgy centre sits the hallowed principle of “consensus”. A consensus about what? You do not begin to grasp the way until you grasp that the first, overarching consensus is to have a consensus, usually in the form of a post-summit joint statement. The consensus can, as a Singaporean diplomat, Bilahari Kausikan, puts it, be goals that everyone knows are unattainable. Or it can be extraordinarily bland.
If there is any excitement, it tends to come from outside the cathedral. At the East Asia Summit in Pattaya in Thailand seven years ago, protesters invaded the convention centre; the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean leaders had to be airlifted to safety and the summit cancelled. Banyan found the Thai finance minister on the beach, the trousers of his impeccable suit rolled up, helping foreign dignitaries into rubber dinghies.
Some romantics put this agreement not to disagree down to a beguiling regional culture of pacifism, fine manners and face-saving. Sorry, lah! South-East Asia has had more than its share of modern horrors, including genocides (eg, Cambodia), civil wars (Vietnam and, still, Myanmar), race riots (Malaysia, Singapore), coups (Thailand) and pogroms (Indonesia, Myanmar again). Visceral ethnic, religious and linguistic antagonisms still lurk just beneath the surface in even the most peaceable-seeming of South-East Asian societies.
And that is the point. A modicum of cohesion, order and civility became—Mr Kausikan again—central to a grouping in which none of those qualities could be taken for granted. Formal voting would only create winners and losers, risking rupture. So bloodless consensus-building it is. From this follows another hallowed principle, that of non-interference. That is how, for years, Myanmar’s oppressive generals were allowed to run their country into the ground with not a peep from fellow members of ASEAN.
Prioritising form over substance has clear drawbacks, including a tendency towards pomposity—as when ASEAN declared itself a nuclear-free zone. But members remember ASEAN’s provenance. The five founders in 1967 (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) had their differences; Indonesia had just waged an undeclared war against Malaysia. But they came together to confront the threat of Soviet-backed communism emanating from Vietnam.
The cold war is long over, and ASEAN has expanded to include communist or formerly communist countries—Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. But, more than ever, cohesion is called for, thanks to a new great-power contest between China and America being played out in the South China Sea. At an AMM in Phnom Penh in 2012, China sought to apply pressure through Cambodia, a near-client state, to have even the tamest reference to growing Chinese assertiveness in the sea excluded. After fierce bickering behind the scenes, no joint communiqué was issued—a first.
It was, says a senior ASEAN diplomat, a “near-death experience”. At best, it threatened to make a mockery of the hallowed “ASEAN centrality”; at worst, it might have blown the club apart. Since then, and despite redoubled lobbying by China following an international tribunal’s sweeping judgment against its maritime claims, even tiny Laos, beholden to China but resenting it, will strive to avoid a repeat.
The bland leading the bland
For now, it suits the great powers to court ASEAN, taking part in its forums and indulging its notions of centrality. Even China would hate to be blamed for the club’s demise. And so ASEAN summits continue to proliferate.
That is no disaster. For all their imperfections, they are the only game in Asia, a region with a heap of problems and a dearth of structures. They provide a rare opportunity for global leaders to build trust in bilateral meetings on the sidelines. And, for ASEAN, a scintilla of influence is preferable to none at all.